The trouble with the word "nanotechnology" is that it refers mostly to an idea from science fiction and futurism: nanoscopic, self-replicating machines that can turn any piece of matter into another piece of matter in seconds. These do not exist. In the real world, materials scientists, physicists, and biology researchers are working at the nanoscale to build everything from stretchy circuit boards and self-healing plastic to super condoms and cancer medicines. Here are eight innovations that actually exist at nanoscale, and could be about to change your life.
Electro-spinning machine image via IME
1. Super Condoms
Using a simple nano-fabrication technique called electro-spinning, researchers have successfully manufactured a fabric woven from sperm-blocking fibers knitted together with anti-HIV drug delivery fibers. The result is a female condom that prevents pregnancy, guards against HIV transmission, and then evaporates within hours or days depending on how it's manufactured. It's the world's perfect condom, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has just given the researchers $1 million to manufacture them for a mass market.
2. Molecule Printers
We already have 3D printers that can print out everything from toys to skin. And now a research group has figured out how to output the results of a CAD program to a printer that will build functional molecules piece-by-piece. This is an ideal way to create personalized medicine.
3. Stretchable Gold
Why should circuit boards be brittle and stiff? Now they don't have to be, because scientists have invented stretchable gold that can be printed onto rubber circuit boards. With circuits made of stretchable gold, you can bend and torque your devices as much as you want, or have a squeezy computer.
4. Artificial Muscles
Carbon nanotubes are used in a lot of nanoscale devices and applications, and turning into an artificial muscle is just another of its amazing properties. When a carbon nanotube is dipped into charged solution, it absorbs ions, expanding and coiling up. And when it releases those ions, it uncoils in the other direction, stretching out. This motion — coiling and expanding, then uncoiling and stretching — emulates the action of a muscle. It means we've got a molecular outboard motor that can drive other molecules around. Coming soon to your blood vessels or oil spills everywhere!
5. Stain-repellant Fabric Coating
Materials scientists working at the nano-scale with fabric aren't just interested in condoms. They're also making the next generation of water-resistant, unstainable clothing. This isn't just cotton that is easy to wash. It actually "shrugs off" stains because it's made of several nano-layers of positively and negatively charged films that actively repel everything from water to acids. Deadly chemicals might actually jump off your clothing.
6. Highly-Targeted Drug Delivery Capsules
One of the big problems with cancer treatment is that doctors want to deliver medicines to the precise region of your body where the cancer is active. Now, using nanoscale drug capsules, they can. Basically, the drugs are placed inside these nanoscopic capsules, which are attracted to the specific form of cancer the patient is suffering from. Once in range of the cancerous cells, the capsules unleash their medicine — leaving the cancer blighted, but the rest of your body unharmed. Eventually, we could even inject nanoscale machines into your body that would act as tiny pharmaceutical labs, using your body's natural resources (from enzymes to proteins) to manufacture and deliver drugs.
7. Plastic that Bleeds and Heals Itself
Self-healing materials, from concrete that fills in its own cracks to ship hulls that knit back together, are becoming commonplace in the nanofabrication era. One of the most uncanny examples of a self-healing material is a plastic that "bleeds" when it rips, using the extruded "blood" to repair damage and become whole again.
8. Electricity-Generating Viruses
A team of researchers have figured out how to engineer viruses to convert pressure into electrical energy. Paint these viruses onto the bottom of your shoes and you could power up your smart phone. Or paint a dance floor with them and power your whole club.